When Dave Baker's younger sister, Suzanne, visited him on his 59th birthday last week, the schoolteacher from Sacramento burst into tears of relief the moment she stepped into his tidy, two-bedroom apartment in Medford.

When Dave Baker's younger sister, Suzanne, visited him on his 59th birthday last week, the schoolteacher from Sacramento burst into tears of relief the moment she stepped into his tidy, two-bedroom apartment in Medford.

"She just started crying," said Baker, a U.S. Army veteran who saw combat in the highlands of Vietnam. "They had brought food and blankets, not knowing what to expect.

"The last time she came to a place I lived at was Orange County (California)," he explained. "I was renting a shack that was pretty squalid. And she was aware things had gone downhill since then."

She knew her brother was a longtime substance abuser who had served time in prison, been homeless and had suffered ill health over the years. The two siblings had become estranged after their mother died in 2005.

But that has all changed, in part thanks to a collaborative program between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development to help get homeless veterans back on their feet.

Baker is among the formerly homeless veterans taking advantage of 35 rental-assistance vouchers the VA's Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City received last summer.

In the program, eligible veterans pay a third of their income on their rent while Uncle Sam picks up the rest.

Earlier this month, HUD announced 70 more rental-assistance vouchers are available with $354,333 in funds allotted to the local program. The vouchers are part of what is officially known as the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program. The VA also provides support services and case management to eligible homeless veterans.

"We've had so many referrals for the 35 — we have a lot of veterans in need right here," observed Wendy Hicks, the HUD-VASH coordinator who also serves as local case manager for the vouchers received last year.

"There are a lot of reasons why a veteran may become homeless — mental health, substance abuse, evictions," she said. "We help them get back on their feet, make sure they are paying their bills, the whole gamut. Sometimes you don't get that second chance. They are."

"The program is designed to reduce homelessness in the veteran community," added Mike Twiss, chief social worker at the SORCC. "They are pushing to get people out of the shelters and into permanent housing."

To be eligible, a veteran must have been homeless for a year or four times in the past three years. The veterans can use the vouchers at any housing facility that participates in a HUD program. As long as the veteran adheres to the rules and stays clean and sober, there is no termination date for the voucher, Twiss said.

"We've had a great response from the community and property managers in the area," Hicks said. "It's helpful for landlords and property managers because they know they are getting secure rent. They also have case managers to ensure they get good tenants."

Voucher recipient Floyd Crane, 57, marked his second anniversary of being clean from illegal drugs on Monday. He acquired his studio apartment a year ago in September.

"I'm very comfortable in my little apartment," he said. "It's been a long time since I've had a place."

Both he and Hicks, his case worker, agree that he had to make a couple of adjustments. He quickly acquired three fish tanks.

"Fish was something I did years ago to help me stay calm," he said.

Crane is an Army veteran who served five years in uniform, after first being drafted in 1971. An enlisted man who rose to the rank of E-5, he was based in Germany where he served as a neuropsychiatric technician.

"I've had a 40-year IV drug addiction," he said, noting it included everything from cocaine to heroin. "If I could get it to break down in a spoon, I pretty much shot it. My situation finally got to the point where I had no choice but to address the addiction."

A construction worker, he sold the van he had been living in for nearly two years, bought a bus ticket from Las Vegas to Seattle where he sought help from the VA. He was referred to the SORCC.

"Floyd has paid his bills — he is going back to college," Hicks said. "He's got a computer. He has never touched one before. He has re-established a relationship with his parents. There has been a monumental change in Floyd's life."

Back in his apartment, Baker also talks about monumental changes.

"I put on 120 pounds since I saw my sister last, got a set of teeth — I'm doing good," Baker said. "My sister was here for three or four days. She was so happy that I'm doing good that she would start crying. I'm the only family she has left."He worked as a carpenter until he couldn't hold down a job because of drinking. Alcohol abuse also led to crime. All told, he would spend 15 years behind bars because of substance abuse-related crimes that included robbery.

Now he rides his bicycle about town for exercise. He catches the bus to visit Ashland or the SORCC. One bedroom is set up for his wood-work and leather-work hobbies.

"I'm so fortunate to be where I am today," Baker said. "It's more than I ever dreamed. It's wonderful to be clean and sober and on my own ... to have a life again."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.